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Report Calls Asia 'World's Biggest Prison for Press' - 2004-05-03

Monday marks Press Freedom Day around the world. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders has marked the occasion with a report that calls 2003 a "black year" for press freedom.

In its annual report, Reporters without Borders calls Asia "the world's biggest prison for the press."

The independent advocacy group says more than 200 journalists were detained in 2003 and at least 16 were murdered across the region.

The report says Laos, North Korea and Burma continue to exert total control over their news media. It says all three countries employ pre-publication censorship, and dole out harsh punishment for articles that do not fully support the government.

The report criticizes China for imprisoning 27 journalists during the year, and says only Cuba has a worse record of putting journalists in jail. Nepal and Bangladesh are also criticized for arresting and torturing scores of journalists.

The report says political pressure by China on Hong Kong's news media, and the "political-economic interests of some media bosses," have fostered self-censorship in the former British colony.

Frances Moriarty is Chairman of the Press Freedom Committee of Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondent's Club. He says Hong Kong's press has continued to enjoy relative press freedom since being returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, but he says subtler, economic pressures from Beijing have had a chilling effect.

"You have very powerful companies that will not place ads in certain newspapers here because of their [the newspapers'] political stance, or because they have done articles critical of those companies," he said.

The media of Taiwan, which China claims as a breakaway province, receive overall praise from Reporters without Borders for their openness. So do those of Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

Australia is generally classified as having a free press, but is criticized for preventing journalists from reporting fully on the government's detention of asylum seekers.